For the University of British Columbia (UBC), integrating health and wellness practices into the institution’s culture has been a process. Health promotions for faculty and staff at the 103-year-old Vancouver-based university formally began in 2003 with a one-day Health Symposium, which included a keynote speaker, a lunch and a series of sessions. “Employees were encouraged to take time off work to spend the day in health workshops,” says Suzanne Jolly, health promotions co-ordinator, HR, with UBC. “The symposium was meant to get people on board with thinking about their health.”

Four years later, HR rolled out its Focus on People strategy. Building a sustainable healthy workplace was one of its main priorities, but Jolly maintained that this could not be accomplished through one yearly event. “Forget the one-day symposium—we’re doing things throughout the year,” she said. “Healthy workplaces need more than one day.”

Regularly scheduled programs
Under Jolly’s direction, that one-day symposium has expanded to several large-scale campus-based events scheduled throughout the year, known as Healthy UBC Initiatives.

In February, Jolly spends about two weeks visiting departments and units within the university to promote health awareness through the UBC Travelling Health Fair.

In October/November, there is the five-week Amazing Race Health Challenge. Run through the employee and family assistance program (EFAP) committee, it allows teams of faculty and staff in campus-wide departments and units to compete in healthy activities and track their progress online. “For every day, you log your points as an individual, but as a team, you’re competing against other teams,” explains Jolly. Participation prizes include a $100 gift card for Ticketmaster, UBC recreational classes or UBC Food Services, as well as the choice of a $500 UBC Food Services gift card, a Nintendo Wii or two massage chairs for the grand prize-winning team.

Also in October/November is UBC Thrive, a week-long program to challenge mental health stigma and raise awareness of suicide prevention. It offers health screening and promotes mental resiliency on campus.

And, since 2009, UBC has hosted two shows (day and evening) by Stand Up for Mental Health, which teaches people with mental illness how to do stand-up comedy, as well as how to navigate the healthcare system and workplace dynamics while dealing with mental health issues. These shows occur in October, to coincide with UBC Thrive.

HR also provides up to $100,000 annually, through its Healthy Workplace Initiatives Program (HWIP), to departments and units to create and support health initiatives for their particular staff. The HWIP Fund Adjudicating Committee, which comprises staff and faculty from both the UBC Vancouver and Okanagan campuses, evaluates the applications. “That’s in recognition of the fact that departments and units across UBC are very diverse,” Jolly explains. “We’re not just talking socio-economically in terms of employees, or diversity in terms of equity issues, but also the nature of their work”—from janitorial service to traditional office work to landscaping.

Last year, 38 departments within UBC applied for funding (each department requests, on average, $5,000), and 27 of those received it. For example, three departments [Animal Care; the School of Population and Public Health (Vancouver Campus); and Campus Life (Okanagan Campus)] have used the funds for a cycle share program so that faculty and staff can bike during their lunch hour and breaks, and also get to meetings across the sprawling campus.

82% reported that they had decided to change their attitudes or behaviours—and had formulated a plan on how to do it—as a result of the program.

The health initiatives are designed to complement UBC’s extended health benefits. For example, employees can see a nutritionist through the EFAP, but in bringing a nutritionist to the campus to do an initial assessment, employees may start thinking about prevention as opposed to acting in a reactive way.

Participant feedback on the various programs has been constructive. “We are constantly barraged with positive comments appreciating that we’re looking out for our employees and that they’re feeling valued and seeing their needs being met by the programming,” Jolly notes. In fact, 82% of those who participated strongly agreed or agreed that the program they attended increased their knowledge of the importance of personal health. Even more striking, 82% reported that they had decided to change their attitudes or behaviours—and had formulated a plan on how to do it—as a result of the program.

Still a stigma
Despite UBC employees’ optimism toward their health programs, mental illness carries a stigma that employers and the government are working hard to remove. Jolly notes that many large organizations in B.C. are tackling mental health as a priority and points to the fact that the World Health Organization prioritizes depression as one of the main reasons why people leave work.

Even with UBC Thrive in place, Jolly still encounters that stigma. “We have a suicide campaign, for example, and give away free pens with 1-800-SUICIDE on them. I’ve seen people pick up a pen, see the suicide reference and put it back down, not wanting to be associated with suicide in any way,” she says. “Yet I know that they likely know someone whose life has been impacted by suicide.”

With such sensitivity around mental health issues, UBC tries to address them in an innovative way. In Thrive’s first year, for instance, the kickoff event was a cooking show hosted by one of the UBC chefs. “After the show, we had a panel of experts talking about how food impacts mood,” Jolly adds. “So we’re coming at it from that angle as opposed to, ‘Come to this depression workshop,’ although we do offer some of that.”

The university also offers free 12-hour voluntary Mental Health First Aid training for faculty and staff. “It’s like CPR training but around mental health,” Jolly explains. While this program is optional, she is seeing more departments prioritize these skill sets. For example, the Faculty of Arts advisors came forward as a group to get this training. “They’re working with students. At the same time, we know those skills are going to be applied to staff and faculty, too.”

Jolly believes that the university’s openness around mental health is leading edge. “I think employers are still afraid to discuss mental illness candidly,” she says. “In fact, by promoting the program, the university itself may face a stigma or be perceived to have a problem.”

Yet Jolly recognizes the importance of prioritizing health, both mental and physical, as do the Province of B.C. and the Government of Canada. “And they’ve done a great job in terms of health promotions on physical activity: everyone knows how much they should exercise and what they should be eating, but they don’t necessarily know how to build mental resiliency.” In fact, UBC’s program has served as a model for other organizations. The Department of National Defence has contacted Jolly expressing interest in the Amazing Race Health Challenge, and BC Hydro has contacted large companies in southern B.C. about their mental health programs. But whatever health programs these organizations choose to implement, if Jolly’s influence is there, they will definitely be more than one-day affairs.

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Copyright © 2020 Transcontinental Media G.P. This article first appeared in Benefits Canada.

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